Remembering the FBI's Strange Obsession and Constant Surveillance of Charlie Chaplin


In September 1952, Charlie Chaplin boarded the Queen Elizabeth bound for Europe, to introduce the continent to his latest film, Monsieur Verdoux. On board the ship, Chaplin learned that the United States government would only let him return to the U.S.—where he had lived for the past three decades—if he subjected himself to an Immigration and Naturalization inquiry into his moral and political character. Chaplin refused to submit to the inquiry. He would not return to the U.S. until 1972, when the Academy of Motion Pictures gave him an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement.

Why did the U.S. government exile Chaplin? The Federal Bureau of Investigations investigated Chaplin from 1922 onward for his alleged ties to the Communist Party of the United States. Chaplin’s 1,900-page file is filled with innuendo and slander, as agents exhausted themselves talking to his co-workers and adversaries, looking for any hint of communist association. They found none. In December 1949, an FBI agent wrote, "No witnesses available to testify affirmatively that Chaplin has been member CP in past, that he is now a member or that he has contributed funds to CP."

Beside the charge that he was a communist, Chaplin faced the accusation that he was an "unsavory character" who violated the Mann Act— the White Slave Traffic Act of 1910. Chaplin had paid for the travel of Joan Barry, his girlfriend, across state lines. Chaplin was found not guilty of these charges in 1944. It has subsequently been shown in a number of memoirs and studies that Chaplin was cruel to his wives (three of his four marriages were to teenagers) and often ruthless in his relations with women. In 1943, Chaplin married the playwright Eugene O’Neill’s daughter Oona. She was 18 to Chaplin's 54. They would have eight children. Oona Chaplin left the United States with her husband and was with him when he died in 1977.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had considerable evidence to sift through, but none of it was found to be sufficient to deport Chaplin. What was the smoke that got into Hoover’s nose from the fire of Chaplin’s politics? From 1920 onwards, it was clear Chaplin had sympathies for the left. That year, Chaplin sat with Buster Keaton, the famous silent film actor, to drink a beer in Keaton’s kitchen in Los Angeles. Chaplin was at the height of his success. With Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffith, Chaplin created United Artists, a company that broke with the studio system to give these four actors and directors control over their work. Chaplin was then working on The Kid (1921), one of his finest films and based almost certainly on his childhood. Keaton recounted that Chaplin talked "about something called communism which he just heard about."

"Communism," Chaplin told him, according to Buster Keaton, "was going to change everything, abolish poverty." Chaplin banged on the table and said, "What I want is that every child should have enough to eat, shoes on his feet and a roof over his head." Keaton’s response is casually insincere: "But Charlie, do you know anyone who doesn’t want that?"

Chaplin came to the United States just after the Russian Revolution. He saw the growing lines of unemployment and distress in the United States; an unemployed population that grew from 950,000 in 1919 to five million in 1921. It was a time of great class struggle. Chaplin’s silent films were anchored by the figure of the Tramp, the iconic poor man in a modern capitalist society. "I am like a man who is ever haunted by a spirit, the spirit of poverty, the spirit of privation," Chaplin said. That is precisely what one sees in his films, from The Tramp (1915) to Modern Times (1936).

"The whole point of the Little Fellow," Chaplin said in 1925 of the tramp figure, "is that no matter how down on his ass he is, no matter how well the jackals succeed in tearing him apart, he’s still a man of dignity." Chaplin’s sympathy for the working class defines his most famous silent films. It was Chaplin’s popularity and his message that disturbed the FBI. "There are men and women in far corners of the world who never have heard of Jesus Christ; yet they know and love Charlie Chaplin," noted an article an FBI agent clipped and highlighted in Chaplin’s file. 

The great limitation in his films is the depiction of women, who are always damsels in distress or rich women who are desired by poor men. There are few "women of dignity," women who at that time were in pitched battles for their own rights. In fact, many silent films in both the U.K. and the U.S. disparaged the suffragette movement of their time. In the six-minute film, A Busy Day (1914)—originally titled A Militant Suffragette—Charlie Chaplin plays a suffragette who is boorish and then dies by drowning.

The film was released the same year Sylvia Pankhurst, a devoted communist and anti-fascist, founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes to unite suffragette politics with socialism. In 1920, she wrote A Constitution for British Soviets. If only Chaplin’s sexism had not blocked him from celebrating his contemporaries such as Pankhurst, Joan Beauchamp (another suffragette and founder of the British Communist Party) and her sister Kay Beauchamp (co-founder of The Daily Worker, now Morning Star) and Fanny Deakin.

What drew Chaplin into the orbit of institutional left-wing politics was the rise of fascism and the Nazi sweep across Europe. Chaplin’s 1940 film The Great Dictator was his brilliant satire of fascism. Two years later, Chaplin flew to New York City to be the main speaker at a communist-backed Artists Front to Win the War event. Chaplin took the stage at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 16, 1942, addressed the crowd as "comrades" and said that communists are "ordinary people like ourselves who love beauty, who love life." Then, Chaplin offered his clearest statement on communism: "They say communism may spread out all over the world. And I say, so what?"

Chaplin was impressed by the principled and unyielding stand taken by the communists against fascism, whether during the Spanish Civil War or in the Eastern Front against the Nazi invasion of the USSR. In 1943, Chaplin called the USSR a "brave new world" that gave "hope and aspiration to the common man." He hoped that the USSR would "grow more glorious year by year. Now that the agony of birth is at an end, may the beauty of its growth endure forever." When asked a decade later why he was so vocal about his support for the USSR, Chaplin said, "During the war I sympathized much with Russia because I believe that she was holding the front." This sympathy remained through the remainder of his life.

Chaplin had not calculated the toxicity of the Cold War era in the United States. In 1947, he told reporters, "These days if you step off the curb with your left foot, they accuse you being a communist." Chaplin did not back off from his beliefs or betray his friends. At that same press conference he was asked if he knew the Austrian musician Hanns Eisler, a communist who wrote the music for many of Bertolt Brecht’s plays. He had fled Nazi Germany for the United States to work in Hollywood. Eisler had composed songs for the Communist Party and would write music for the anthem of the German Democratic Republic—Auferstanden Aus Ruinen. Chaplin came to his defense, saying that Eisler "is a personal friend and I am proud of the fact…I don’t know whether he is a communist or not. I know he is a fine artist and a great musician and a very sympathetic friend." When asked if it would make any difference to Chaplin if Eisler was a communist, he said, "No, it wouldn’t." It took a lot of courage to defend Hanns Eisler, who would be deported from the U.S. a few months later.

When Chaplin died in Switzerland in December 1977, he was mourned far and wide. In Calcutta, where a left front government had just come to power in a landslide, artists and political activists gathered to mourn him. The main speaker at the memorial service was the Bengali film director Mrinal Sen. In 1953, Sen wrote a book on Chaplin, illustrated by Satyajit Ray.

Neither Sen nor Ray had yet made any of their iconic films yet. "Without a moral justification," Sen said at the memorial, "cinema is ridiculous, is atrocious, is an outrage. It is a social activity. It is man’s creation." The gap between art and politics should not be too wide, Sen warned. He was thinking of Chaplin’s films, but also of his own. At that time, Sen was working on Ek Din Pratidin (One Day, Everyday), a superb film that chronicles the possibilities of women’s emancipation. Here Sen went far beyond Chaplin: his communism included women.

This article originally appeared on Vijay Prashad’s blog.

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